Professors at colleges and universities, comprising four-year institutions, community colleges and more, can earn very different salaries based on factors such as the type of school, subject and length of tenure. This variety of experiences can make it difficult to point to a single expected salary range, but up-and-coming academics who aspire to take on professorial roles should still study the numbers.
Data on average professor salaries and on strategies to strengthen earning power, can demonstrate the career path open to those who accumulate the right academic credentials and work experience. With government data showing enrollment rising at higher education institutions around the country and the world, it’s a good time to examine the professor’s role in terms of money, progression and job openings.
Average Professor Salaries
Estimates of the average professor salary across all school types and subjects differ depending on which organization is calculating the data. According to PayScale, the median pay for a professor in postsecondary education is $87,018. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, citing its 2018 data, put the median number at $78,470. In each case, there are major deviations from the median number. Professors who have served for many years in the field, or who teach in-demand subjects, stand to earn significantly more than the baseline amounts.
Breakdown by Subject and School Type
The BLS gave a breakdown of higher education teaching salary ranges by class. Teachers of law were the top earners in 2018, with median wages of $111,140. Engineering and economics were also high-demand subjects, with the median salary for each of these areas reaching six figures. Health specialty professors followed close behind at $97,370.
In addition to its division by subject, the BLS added a breakdown of professor salary by type of school. State community colleges provided the lowest median wages, followed by private colleges and universities, then state colleges and universities. Local community colleges offered the highest average salaries.
The BLS added that professorial teaching duties are often only part of an educator’s schedule. Some professors will teach full-time jobs in their disciplines of choice, while others will take on administrative functions within their schools, and still others take on both teaching and administrative duties.
Progress Based on Experience
One of the most important concepts in higher education is the accrual of earning power over time. While entry-level professors aren’t at the peak of their salary potential, conditions can change drastically, especially for educators who earn coveted tenure track positions — the ultimate mark of job security in academia.
PayScale broke down the progression of professor salaries based on length of service in the field. Among late-career professors — those who have served at colleges or universities for 20 years or more — the average annual pay is $99,052. This is a significant progression from approximately $60,000 a year earned by entry-level educators, as well as those who have served for four or fewer years. The average salary is $70,208 for professors with five to nine years of experience, while those in the field for 10-19 years earn $87,028.
In addition to analyzing the earnings accrued due to tenure, PayScale added that professors’ pay may change drastically based on their school. Schools such as the University of Pennsylvania, University of California and Boston University offer average pay of over $100,000 to their faculty members, marketing these institutions as likely targets for professors interested in staying in the field long term and advancing their careers.
Entry-Level Roles and Progression for Professors
People who are interested in a professor’s combination of academic research and teaching opportunities, as well as salary opportunities, should examine likely career paths in the field. Once they’ve found entry-level positions, new professors should ensure they can advance, potentially securing their place by earning tenure and promotion.
The BLS indicated that a doctoral level education is the widely accepted standard for first-time professors. Four-year colleges and universities will likely be looking for applicants who are doctoral candidates or already have a doctorate. Professional experience requirements tend to be more varied and flexible than academic accomplishments. Depending on the school and subject, professorial candidates may need years of research work or other relevant professional history.
When teaching a subject overseen by a licensing authority — such as nursing or education — professors may need to have the relevant certification. The BLS noted serving as graduate teaching assistants is another way for potential professors to accumulate relevant experience. This option is open to people who attend graduate-level courses in a subject they hope to teach.
Advancement Opportunities and Pathways
The BLS restated the importance of tenure for educators who plan to make a professor role into a long-term career. Finding a tenure track position can be challenging, as colleges are aware of the value of these positions and are leaning more heavily on part-time teachers. Once on a pathway to tenure, the journey may take up to seven years, as educators rise from assistant professor status to associate and full professor. A review board will consider contributions to teaching, research and more to determine whether to award tenure.
A tenured position isn’t the only career outcome for long-term educators. The BLS added that some professors choose administration and become deans or presidents of their respective colleges and universities. People who are interested in taking on the challenges and opportunities of administrative roles may benefit from studying education at the doctoral level, receiving a doctor of education degree and becoming familiar with the world of academia.
Higher Learning for Aspiring Academics
Pursuing a doctorate degree related to academia is a path to more detailed knowledge and experience in the field, and potential leadership opportunities. Candidates interested in becoming professors in subjects such as education, current professors seeking to make a career move into academic leadership or others seeking a deeper understanding of leadership in colleges and universities can enroll in the online Ed.D. program. In these 100% digital courses, designed to fit alongside a full-time work schedule, students get an expert overview on the concepts driving higher education.
Ed.D. students learn about the trends in colleges and universities today, such as the increasing use of technology as an academic tool and the role of political engagement and policy reform in higher education. The program’s culminating experience is a scholarly research project using action research methodology to perform vital and relevant studies on the way higher education is practiced today — and how it can be improved to benefit students and educators of the future.
An Ed.D. is valuable to show that an educator has received top-quality instruction on important concepts in education today. With the degree, the aspiring professor will be prepared for excel and advance in academia. A fulfilling career as a tenured professor, a dean or a school president can empower an educator to make positive changes in a college or university, or the higher education field as a whole. The road to such a position can begin with an Ed.D.